As COVID-19 swept across the U.S. last winter and spring, colleges and universities adapted swiftly to the situation. Though it was swift, it was not without pain: Just as quickly as professors learned to teach through a screen on Zoom, administrations slashed budgets. In the early days of the pandemic, little was certain about the future — if students would defer fall enrollment, how states might cut education funding or if the federal government would step in to offset the financial impact of the crises. Nevertheless, public and private higher education institutions across the country put in place austerity measures ahead of what they foresaw as a fiscal emergency.

Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) bears this out, largely in the form of a reduced workforce. BLS data released in February 2021 estimated that higher education lost 650,000 workers, a 13 percent reduction in the sector since February 2020. While many schools have seen lower enrollment numbers and other financial losses, some union organizers say that these cuts were premature, premeditated, and in some cases, draconian.

Anneta Argyres, president of the Professional Staff Union (PSU) at UMass Boston, says the University of Massachusetts system, which is composed of six campuses, has been cutting costs for years, as public education has become more privatized in part due to disinvestment from the government. “We privatize, we push all these costs off the state and onto the individual campuses and individual workers and then we drive this corporate financial model of how to run the institution, with completely inverted priorities. The priorities are no longer education and accessibility, the priority is how much profit are you making,” she says. “There’s something fundamentally wrong for a public institution to be operating that way. Add COVID on top of that, and it just becomes another excuse, but they’re carrying out exactly the same policies.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for UMass says that out of 18,000 workers, there were “fewer than 20 actual layoffs and 1,200 indefinite furloughs.” Yet previous reports have shown that in July, 134 employees across the system had been laid off, along with more than 1,000 student and temporary positions cut, and many more not being filled. Thousands more have taken unpaid furloughs. At UMass Amherst, members of the PSU effectively had their wages reduced to nearly 6 percent in 2020, due to a series of voluntary unpaid furloughs, according to PSU co-chair Brad Turner.

“They pushed for these furloughs and staff reductions based on sort of budget projections, where they were projecting a fiscal emergency that never turned out,” says Andrew Gorry, communication chair of the PSU at UMass Amherst. Gorry says the Board of Trustees Administration and Finance Committee projected over $83 million in losses in July, but that estimate then increased to $168.6 million the following month. As of December, the Board of Trustees now projects a $26 million surplus.

The drop in enrollment at UMass Amherst was minimal, there was level funding from the state and three rounds of federal stimulus packages. “We’re seeing, from December to March, these deficits they were projecting are being completely erased,” says Turner. “Since last March, the university has gotten about $53 million it can spend however it wants, not on students. And for the university system, that number is about $141.5 million.”

The CARES Act language notes that institutions should use the funds “promptly and to the greatest extent practicable,” preferably within a year.

Even more egregious, organizers say, are the vast reserves the university has but refuses to touch. The UMass system has an emergency stabilization fund of around $125 million, which Board of Trustees member Michael V. O’Brien mused could only be spent on “a completely unforeseen cataclysm” like an “asteroid strike.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association also uncovered unrestricted endowment funds, one holding $323 million at the end of fiscal year 2019, slated for investment. A 2020 report stated the UMass endowment was $922 million.

In an email, UMass Executive Director of Communications John Hoey wrote, “Recklessly draining reserves, endowments, and stabilization funds would endanger the long-term financial viability of the university and could result in deeper permanent cuts and layoffs — and tuition increases — down the road.” He also noted that “much of the University’s net worth is already financially and/or legally committed to a designated purpose.”

There has also been little transparency at other schools about how federal stimulus dollars are actually being spent. Barbara Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) at the City University of New York (CUNY), says that out of $251 million that CUNY received in the CARES Act, the first round of federal stimulus funding, around $72 million has not been spent. “Instead of investing it right away in the pretty broad list of things that is in the federal legislation, that can be covered by the CARES Act money, they held onto it as a hedge against future budget cuts, while CUNY suffered,” Bowen says. “There has not been transparency. We’re demanding now that they invest it in ways that will really serve the needs of the community.” CUNY did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The financial needs of CUNY workers are apparent, having felt the impact of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision, early in the pandemic, to withhold 20 percent of state funding for CUNY’s budget. Around 2,800 adjuncts were told over the summer that they would not be reappointed; though around 1,000 have since been reinstated. In the winter, CUNY told employees it was planning to violate PSC’s contract and not implement a 2 percent salary increase that was meant to go into effect on November 15. In February of this year, CUNY announced it would withhold $1,000 equity pay increases that had been scheduled for a group of 2,500 workers (lecturers and office workers) who are primarily women and people of color.

The PSC staged a successful, wide-ranging campaign against the equity pay delay. “The whole union fought back, that was the key,” Bowen says. “We knew that a breach in the contract against the lower-paid workers, people of color in particular, the majority women in a couple of these titles, to do that in this moment when families are struggling so hard in New York, was completely unacceptable.”

The American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) union at Rutgers University in New Jersey has also had significant wins against COVID-related austerity measures this spring, after a year spent working with 18 other unions across campus. When the pandemic first hit, the coalition of unions presented the university with a work-share proposal, where workers would take voluntary furloughs but would offset the income losses with federal unemployment. The university rejected it, instead declaring a fiscal emergency, laying off 1,000 people and canceling raises for union workers.

Todd Wolfson, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, and the president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, says the financial decisions the school made were predictable. “We knew what they were gonna do when the pandemic hit, because it’s what they always do, which is they were going to make draconian, austerity-driven cuts and they were going to go after the most vulnerable workers at the university,” he says.

Wolfson says Rutgers has not been forthcoming about the state of the university’s finances, or what it has planned for the federal stimulus dollars. In the CARES Act package alone, Rutgers received over $54 million, the third-highest allocation in the country. To illustrate where the university’s priorities lay, Wolfson pointed to a $100 million internal loan it made to Rutgers athletics last year, amid the pandemic. “The amount of money they’ve lost in the pandemic and what they’ve done in response to it is dwarfed by the amount they spend on the athletics program at a whim.”

Despite its initial loss, the Coalition of Rutgers Unions continued organizing. Last week it announced a tentative agreement that guarantees no layoffs for staff unions through January 1, 2022, funding extensions for graduate students, a timetable to pay out the previously canceled raises and a reversal that allows them to reappoint adjunct faculty. For Wolfson, the takeaway is that workers clearly have a better chance at winning when they work together. Though different unions and different parts of the campus community may sometimes be at odds with one another, they realized the importance of uniting around the same goals.

“The antidote to the austerity agenda that they have is that we can’t crawl into our corners and fight smaller and smaller battles and draw smaller and smaller lines of our turf,” Wolfson says. “We need to be broader and bigger and more expansive and bolder. We have a lot more work to do, but the biggest story here is that 20,000 workers across New Jersey are going to work together to continue to fight for one another in our contracts and through this pandemic.”